Cross-posted on The Dead Writers Society.
“What else could you call Hill House?” Luke demanded. “Well—disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit.
Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different perspective. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.
The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters - Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House - was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?
In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the "help," who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor's oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide - or possibly to force - the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor's narration slips further and further into confusion.
One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word "journey" over and over again, in discussing Eleanor's trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.
"Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.
When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;
“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague."
Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase "journeys end with lovers meeting," fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love's coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.
What is love? 'Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth's a stuff will not endure.
The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:
"It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House."
The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor's relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor's journey at Hill House.
Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson's ability to describe the oddities of the house - the doors that won't stay open, the angles that aren't quite right, the rooms that don't fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.
"Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away."
This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her - We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both - always in autumn.
"Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."